Facing a pandemic, record workload and armed protesters, Oregon’s workplace watchdog sticks to its playbook

Michael Wood, administrator of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (Courtesy/Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services)

On a Sunday in December, a crowd of people carrying American flags descended on a house in a sleepy neighborhood in west Salem to declare they’d had enough.

After a prayer and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, people from the mostly maskless crowd of about 100 stopped at the house, taking turns speaking into a microphone about the ways state pandemic restrictions upended their lives, according to a video of the event.

A woman turned toward the house and screamed about how her son had lost her business. Others cited conspiracy theories that the coronavirus was planned or said state pandemic orders were illegal. Someone cried “tar and feather.”

Inside, Micahel Wood, administrator of the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, monitored the unprecedented event. He runs the state agency charged with making sure the state’s roughly 2 million workers go home healthy and uninjured.

Before the pandemic, employees likely knew the agency for its safety posters in break rooms or occasional worksite inspections.

Now OSHA is the state’s Covid cop, enforcing new rules for masking, sanitation and social distancing aimed at slowing the virus’ spread in Oregon workplaces. The agency’s inspectors and staff have been saddled with an unprecedented workload. They’ve conducted their work out in a polarized political environment that’s led to unusually confrontational pushback.

Even with a protest on his doorstep, Wood says he and his team will keep doing their job.

Wood, who has served as head of Oregon OSHA for 15 years and worked more than 20 years for a similar department in Washington, said his work and the work of his staff has proceeded normally despite the public turmoil. 

“In a sense, it’s simply another hazard that we need to address in the workplace to keep workers safe,” said Wood, 59. “We think our job is addressing hazards in the workplace and Covid-19 is certainly a hazard in the workplace as well as elsewhere.”

Wood said that while there are extraordinary aspects to Covid, which has sickened over 127,000 Oregonians and resulted in 1,600 deaths, Oregon OSHA is largely following its standard playbook of education, worksite observations and enforcement.

The agency has a budget of $28.6 million and a staff of 206, including 49 safety compliance officers and 27 health compliance officers. Typically, Oregon OSHA focuses on manufacturers, construction sites and agricultural operations where workers are at the greatest risk of an accident.

The new Covid rules have put agency inspectors in retailers, restaurants and salons. That’s resulted in more pushback.

Wood said that armed people have stood outside of businesses to intimidate his staff, who he said are trained in de-escalation techniques. The agency has taken added safety measures, said Wood, declining to provide details.

The pandemic isn’t the first time Oregon OSHA staff have faced heated situations with confrontational employers or workers, he said. On occasion, employers have threatened to strike inspectors with a car or slung a tool next to them in a threatening way, he said.

Employers have, at times, intimated that they’re armed, Wood said.

“Those things aren’t unique to Covid-19 environment,” he said. “What is true is that we are probably seeing more of that.”

Even in the contentious environment, he said the agency’s work, for the most part, has remained professional and even frustrated business owners recognized that inspectors are there to do a job.

In March, Gov. Kate Brown closed gyms, barber shops and other businesses to control the virus. In May, Lindsey Graham, the owner of Salem’s Glamour Salon, reopened her salon in defiance of the governor. Graham’s highly publicized at drew national headlines. She became a folk hero for some and armed citizens stood guard outside her business during protests in June.

Supporters cheer the opening on Tuesday, May 5, of Glamour Salon at 195 Liberty St. S.E. Owner Lindsey Graham said she opened in defiance of state restrictions to earn an income (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Despite all the attention, Wood said the situation with Glamour Salon proceeded as it normally would. After an inspection and meeting with Graham’s lawyer, Oregon OSHA issued a $14,000 citation, which she has appealed.

The pandemic has also created an unprecedented amount of work. In an average year, the state agency processes about 2,000 complaints alleging unsafe working conditions. Last year, the agency received 10 times that number.

Oregon OSHA’s new role has come with frustrations, said Wood.

The workplace safety agency has received complaints about gatherings in the park, which he said is beyond his authority. It’s also gotten complaints that it doesn’t do more.

“I think they are doing the best they can with the resources they’ve got,” said Dan Clay, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.

Despite receiving a record number of Covid-related complaints, Oregon OSHA has issued just a handful of citations.

Clay, whose union represents grocery store workers and other frontline workers, said that even in normal times the agency doesn’t field enough inspectors to regularly visit workplaces. Faced with a mounting workload, Oregon OSHA has had to prioritize complaints and responded to the most egregious, he said.

“That is just a bandwidth problem,” said Clay, who stressed that he appreciates the agency’s work. “It’s a pretty impossible task.”

As Oregon OSHA began adopting Covid workplace regulations, business groups complained that they were difficult to implement or were too stringent.

Paloma Sparks, vice president of Oregon Business Industry, said in a statement that it’s not clear how the new rules are playing out but businesses are nervous about having goal posts shifted in the middle of an inspection.

“We enjoy a good working relationship with the leadership at Oregon OSHA and have been able to frankly communicate the serious challenges that Oregon businesses are faced with due to the new Covid regulations,” she said. “Of course, our top priority is the safety and health of all Oregonians, but that doesn’t change the necessity of a commonsense approach to enforcement when businesses are struggling to keep their doors open.”

Wood called the new workplace regulations “basic public health precautions.” But he said they’ve become politicized and a symbol for some.

“That certainly has resulted in unusual pushback,” he said. “I’ve never had protesters at my house before. I don’t believe my staff has ever had protesters at their homes before. That’s certainly a different flavor.”

As Covid transmissions spiked over the fall, the governor in November issued another set of restrictions on closed gyms, theaters and allowed restaurants to only offer takeout. Again, businesses continued defying the order, including Salem’s Courthouse Club Fitness, which was fined $90,000 by Oregon OSHA, after it remained open.

In response to that hefty fine, a group of maskless protesters waving American and Gadsden flags gathered outside the Silverton home of an Oregon OSHA inspector, according to a video of the event.

Drivers passing by honked their horns on the residential street. Joey Gibson, the leader of right-wing protest group Patriot Prayer, told the crowd through an amplifier that “the people at the top are nothing but a group of criminals” intent on “taking everything.”

“Who’s he to tell us when we can operate our businesses and when we cannot?” Gibson said. “Why do we need business licenses anymore? Why do we have to ask permission from this government?”

Wood said the targeted inspector wasn’t at home as protesters arrived. He said the inspector considered sitting on the front porch to make sure his property wasn’t disturbed but decided not to when he learned it had video surveillance. Wood said the inspector is still on the job.

Weeks after the protest, an employee spotted on Facebook plans that Wood’s home would be targeted for a protest in early December. Normally, Wood said he’s out of the house on the weekend helping out with his wife’s business. But with his daughter and mother-in-law home, he decided to stay put for the day.

While he said it was annoying to have to change his plans, it won’t change how the agency operates.

“The notion that making me or my staff feel insecure or uncomfortable in our home is actually going to change what’s happening on the ground is a mistaken idea,” he said.

Wood said he wasn’t going to meet with a crowd of people not wearing masks. But one protester reached him by phone. He said he talked to her about the need for facial coverings, social distancing and following public health guidelines.

At the end of the conversation, neither changed their mind, said Wood.

He said that some people believe government workers “function in a bubble” and have no contact with those in the private sector, a view he called “silly” and pointed out that his wife has a business.

Even with the unusual pushback, he’s sticking with the work because it means workers will end up going home healthier – or alive. Even though he doesn’t know them, he knows they are out there.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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